If you’re not looking for the grain elevators, you might not see Thomasboro, Illinois. While it straddles I-57, Eastern Illinois’ main artery, the village of 1,100 people doesn’t have its own off-ramp. It was here, a 95 percent white community, where Ed.L.D. candidate Cheryl Camacho Lewis — a student of Nigerian Igbo, Chamorro, and Newfoundlander descent — began to refine her vision of leading for equity in schools.
When Camacho Lewis moved to Thomosboro from Newfoundland, Canada, in fourth grade, she and her sister were the first students to integrate Thomasboro Grade School. It was there that they first encountered American prejudice and racism, both explicit and hidden just beneath the surface.
“I was exposed to the real, raw ugliness of people not understanding difference and people not being prepared to engage across lines of difference,” she says of her childhood in Thomasboro.
In school, despite her stellar math grades, Camacho Lewis was denied access to a local high school math class by her teacher while other students who had not performed as well were encouraged. The teacher told her that she “didn’t think she was ready.”
“I internalized all that for a long time,” she says of her teacher’s lack of support. “Children can feel our expectations and our lack of expectations.”
Of course now, as an adult with over 14 years of experience in the education field as a teacher and school leader, Camacho Lewis knows that the problem her teacher had is not unusual; not every educator can artfully and caringly address difficult social problems, especially matters of race and class, in the classroom.
“We can dance around that as much as we want to…. It’s really hard work to dig into the root causes of problems,” Camacho Lewis says. “People don’t know their entry point, what the outcome is supposed to be. Can I talk? Can I not talk? Should I feel guilty? Am I a bad person?”
Camacho Lewis admits that, as a young teacher with Teach For America in Atlanta, even she was not exempt from her own biases. “I had all kinds of assumptions about inner city kids, being from the rural Midwest — ‘Oh, big cities, their parents might not care.’ No! That just wasn’t true at all,” she says.
Throughout her career, Camacho Lewis continued to encounter variations on the same problem. When she led a school 10 minutes from where she grew up — in the more diverse Champaign, Illinois — in which the staff simply avoided the topic of race altogether, which did not help the issues disappear, she knew there was more that needed to be done. With these experiences in mind, Camacho Lewis enrolled in the Ed School’s Ed.L.D. Program, hoping to learn more about tackling the barriers to having these critical conversations.
Halfway through her first year at HGSE, a light turned on for Camacho Lewis when Senior Lecturer Elizabeth City told her class, “You all have theories, you just haven’t made them explicit.” Camacho Lewis began speaking with her Ed.L.D. colleagues about their own struggles teaching contentious social issues in their classrooms. What she discovered was that there is a real need for an organization that brings adults and students together through differentiated learning and developmental learning around social issues.
Building on that idea, Camacho Lewis is designing a test to help establish practitioners’ awareness and knowledge of social issues and their skills for including themes of diversity, equity, and inclusion into curriculum. While she believes there is great work being done around these issues, Camacho Lewis feels like opportunity is missed when we don’t think about how to differentiate those spaces for educators who may be at different stages in their awareness of race, class, and other lines of identity that intersect. She is hoping to develop curricula for both staff training and classroom learning that reinforce each other, and has even entertained the thought of starting a school based on these principles.
“I really do believe that everyone can learn,” she says. “As people invest in their capacity, I’ve seen people shift. My theory of change is all about learning. It’s a unit of change that we ironically don’t pay enough attention to.”
Not yet one third of the way through the Ed.L.D. Program, Camacho Lewis is already sowing the seeds for her post-graduation venture, betting that the soil for critical learning is as rich as that of the Illinois heartland.
“It’s time for us to have these conversations that acknowledge and respect that we all come from different places,” she says. “We are all learners, nobody has or ever will ‘arrive.’ We all have learning to do.”